The English Language Identity (ELI)

In this article, I use and define terms of my own making and will use abbreviations where I deem it appropriate. This is a purely exploratory article, and does not serve to posit any definite position on the subject of this article

Due to the preponderance of English as the de facto global lingua franca, many communities around the world have become much more in touch with their own identities as speakers of certain languages, especially those of minorities that have been driven to the brink of extinction due to sociopolitics, geopolitics, etc. There is often a great deal of individual, social, and political lore surrounding such languages, and most languages besides English, really. Or at least, so one thinks.

English’s privileged position in the world gives it an connotation of neutrality, which often leads people to devalue, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, the language’s history. In fact, this phenomenon is similar to the reason that many people in the world (including within English speaking countries such as the US and the UK) regard the US as having no unique cultural identity, as it is almost identical to England in foundational traditions, due to much of the US’ creations now being widespread in the world. Take fashion and ethnic wear. The US (as well as Europe, to a degree) doesn’t have a specific ethnic wear or article of clothing that is truly its own, because the default mode of dress in many parts of the world is American/European in style. In the same manner, English does not have a uniqueness (as perceived by much of the world) the way some other languages do.

Like any other language, English has a unique history. It stems from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought by Anglo-Saxon settlers, grouped together as Old English, and shifted into Middle English due to the Norman Conquest, bringing a great deal of Norman French influences. The Great Vowel Shift and the introduction of the printing press began to standardize spelling and pronunciation, and the beginnings of British imperial conquest and the separation of the US from Great Britain effected important changes in the English language as it transitioned into Modern English.

Now comes the real question: Do English speakers have a unique cultural and linguistic identity? Do they feel a strong attachment to the ELI, and feel that it forms a critical part of their personal and communal identity?  It is hard to say, due to the sheer number of English speakers in the world, but to narrow it down, it is important to identify the type of English speakers we’re talking about. People who grow up speaking and hearing only English, regardless of whether they learn another language along the way. Exceptions include the children of immigrants who do not grow up speaking their mother tongue, and instead speak only English, as they may only speak English out of convenience and then learn their native tongue later on, which may cultivate a separate identity. This is not to say that the existence of one identity precludes the existence of another, but it is safe to say a non-English language identity is likely to overshadow the ELI.

This brings us to what one might call the converse of the ELI: the Single or Sole Language Identity (SLI). The SLI is similar to the ELI, except that it applies to the speaker of a language who speaks only one language other than English, such as an SLI individual of French. An important assumption that must be made, or rather, a possibility to be acknowledged, is that the individual or individuals in question do not have a frame of reference to compare languages, by virtue of speaking only one language. The question here is: Do SLI individuals feel strongly about speaking their language exclusively, and object to learning or speaking another language on a regular basis, in place of their native language?

I’m thinking about conducting a survey on this topic one day, and write a proper article that has some concrete conclusions. If any of you have something to say on this or think it’s worth sharing, do so on Facebook and Tumblr! I hope you enjoyed reading this!

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sr3934@nyu.edu

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.